Christianity for the Rest of Us

Christianity for the Rest of Us

South Park, Muhammad, Jesus, and the Media

The creators of the cartoon South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have been all over the news
this week.  On the show’s 200th
episode, they sort of depicted the Prophet Muhammad thus attracting the
attention of a radical website called Revolutionmuslim (since taken down) that,
in return, sort of threatened to kill them. 

As pointed out by Hussein Rashid on Religion Dispatches, the media has reacted with dangerous ignorance and
predictable stereotypes–even beyond Bill O’Reilly on FOX news.  Throughout the commentary, including the more
traditionally moderate CNN that treated viewers to this comment: “No other religion
threatens violence over how they are portrayed in the media.” 


Since media depictions of Muhammad appear in the western
media, and incidents of violence regarding such depictions have been directed
toward secular or Christian writers and artists, one can detect a sort of
religious-moral superiority here. 
Western culture, with its Christian heritage isn’t roiled by such
theological narrowness.  After all,
who would get so worked up over religious pictures as to try to kill someone?

I can’t and won’t defend the Revolutionmuslim website.  But violence against those who depict the Divine is not just
an Islamic problem.  It is worth
pointing out that Christianity has a long history of violence against visual
depictions of Jesus, the saints, and God. 
In 1987, Serrano’s Piss Christ provoked
death threats and violence from Christian fundamentalists and conservative
Catholics across the U.S. and Europe and caused political outrage on two
continents.  In the 19th
century, American Catholics were regularly targeted by Protestant mobs for
“worshiping” statues while Protestant ministers lost their positions if they
placed visual depictions of the crucifixion, Mary, or the saints in their
churches.  Two hundred years before
that, Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan army smashed religious artwork in English
parish churches.  During the 16th
century Protestant Reformation, followers of Luther and Calvin looted
cathedrals and convents carting off valuable paintings and statues to burn them
in public squares.   And so it
has been for most of Christian history. 
Indeed, as early as 600, Bishop Serenus of Marseilles destroyed all the
pictures in every church in his city worried that “images somehow cheapened the
sacred words of Scripture.”


The worst outbreak of violence against visual depictions of
Jesus occurred in the 700s.  In
726, Emperor Leo III outlawed the use of icons and ordered their
destruction.  Upon the decree, mass
rioting broke out across the Byzantine Empire demanding the return of visual
art to worship.  At the same time,
Islam had emerged as a rival religion to Christianity, with even stricter
prohibitions against images. 

Ironically, John of Damascus (655-750), the great Christian defender
of artistic depictions of God, lived in the Muslim city of Damascus where he
served as chief councilor to the Caliph. 
The Caliph, despite his own spiritual distaste for representative art,
protected John against several attempts by Christian partisans to have him


John addressed the issue of art rather simply:  What is an image?  “An image is an likeness and
representation of someone containing in itself the person who is imaged.  The image is not wont to be an exact
reproduction of the original.  The
image is one thing, the person represented another.”   There is a distinction between the image and the
thing, thus depicting God or Jesus (or perhaps even Muhammad) should be
allowed, if reverently executed.

Although I doubt that John of Damascus would approve of South Park, he nevertheless opened the
way for Christian artists to explore the territory of depicting divine
things.  Not every believer has
approved of such artistic attempts to image God–and they have often objected by
resorting to violence against property and persons.  Christianity, like Islam, has a very mixed historical record
when it comes to the tension between “no graven images” and the freedom of
religious–or even the irreligious–imagination of the artist. 


Whatever the case, western commentators–especially those who
happen to be Christians–cannot claim any theological superiority regarding art
and God and should not think of this as a “Muslim thing.”  A little less outrage and a little more history might help.  As Jesus once said, “Let the one
without sin cast the first stone.” 

Comments read comments(20)
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tripp fuller

posted April 23, 2010 at 2:23 pm

It may be because I really like Gregory, but I think he would love South Park!
Thanks for the post!

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Bob Cornwall

posted April 23, 2010 at 2:39 pm

Congratulations on the new blog. As for the controversy at hand, it is unfortunate that Islam’s extremists are seen as the mainstream, while Christianity’s extremists are seen as the fringe. It is time that we recognize that Islam is not monolithic and that Christian history, including that in America is less than rosy!

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Bill Parnell

posted April 23, 2010 at 2:45 pm

Thanks for this thoughtful commentary, Diana. I agree completely that religious violence is not the private property of any one religion. Those of us who live in the New York area will also remember “Holy Virgin Mary”, the Nigerian artist Chris Ofili’s painting which incorporates native materials including elephant dung, and the controversy that was created when it was displayed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art a few years ago. Much outrage was expressed, with then-Mayor Giuliani leading the charge. People are free to express their disgust whenever art offends them, and they are welcome to enact their outrage by not patronizing those artists and institutions (and cable TV channels) that sponsor them. It is another matter, however, when art is censored because it might cause offense, or when artists are threatened because they provoke us with their creativity. That’s where I part company with Revolutionmuslim, conservative Catholics, or for that matter, TV network executives.

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Hank Mishkoff

posted April 23, 2010 at 2:48 pm

Diana, I enjoyed your post, but I think you actually made the opposite point from the one you were trying to make.
I think it’s telling that, of all the examples of Christian threats and/or violence you cited, you managed to come up with only one from the last hundred years. In other words, what I really hear you saying is this: Centuries and millennia ago, Christians used to exhibit the virulent and deadly intolerance that some Muslims still do today, but we outgrew it, thank God. Wouldn’t it be great if Muslims of the RevolutionaryMuslim ilk would finally outgrow it too?
I’m not saying that those are MY opinions, and I know that’s not what you THOUGHT you said, but that’s the point I think you actually made.

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Elizabeth Cunningham

posted April 23, 2010 at 2:49 pm

Well said! I am glad to be introduced to your writing and thinking.

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Diana Butler Bass

posted April 23, 2010 at 3:03 pm

Thanks, all for commenting on my new blog!
@Hank, I only cited one, but (sadly) there are many others. Bill points out another–and certainly the various book bannings and shut down art exhibits at public schools, libraries, and city halls count in this category as well. I only listed one because I thought it the most immediately memorable.
I’d like to think we’d grow up…and maybe one day we will! Look forward to your continued contributions here.

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John Dornheim

posted April 23, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Thanks for the new blog. IIRC, Jesus has appeared from time to time on South Park. Regardless, it is a sad day when we begin to let the fundamentalist extremists of any brand begin to dictate what we may or may not look at or how we might portray one’s particular religious figure. There is, of course, good taste, and I think that the best thing which we can do when confronted by it is not draw more attention to it.

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Ray S

posted April 23, 2010 at 3:44 pm

Diana, interesting article but I think you’re missing the point. Obviously religious hatred is not the province of any one religion. But this is the 21st century! The issue is not religious but cultural. Any culture that considers this type of threat normal is one that is tragically flawed. These cultures just happen to be exclusively Muslim in the 21st century.
Having watched the South Park episode in question, the need to censor Mohammed while all other religious leaders are shown liberally is nothing less than a sad sight for Islam and all who believe it.

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posted April 23, 2010 at 5:24 pm

For one with Christian beliefs I will stand up against anyone who provokes violence in the name a Christianity but you seem to condone radical diminishing behavior instead of denouncing it. Christian
organizations also contribute billions of dollars every year to be used by people of all religions.
You should also recognize that this country allows freedom of speech to everyone , does Islam?
(I don’t know)?

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posted April 23, 2010 at 5:42 pm

To: Bob Cornwall,
I read your comments and respectfully disagree. In order for the anti-Christ to come into power he has to be allowed to get into a position of power. It is this belief that Islam is less dangerous than Christianity that will allow the anti-Christ to make his mark (no pun intended) upon humankind.
The prophecies of the two witnesses are now known and they point us durectly to Islam in regards to the question, “From where does the anti-Christ come forth from”.
We must be ever against any and all in-roads that Islam will make over the next decades. However, if you choose to allow Islam freely to rule your life I can not stop you.
The prophecies of the two witnesses require much from some of us. Are you one of those that must act upon their prophecies? Read the entire story at

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posted April 23, 2010 at 5:45 pm

To: Bob Cornwall,
I read your comments and respectfully disagree. In order for the anti-Christ to come into power he has to be allowed to get into a position of power. It is this belief that Islam is less dangerous than Christianity that will allow the anti-Christ to make his mark (no pun intended) upon humankind.
The prophecies of the two witnesses are now known and they point us durectly to Islam in regards to the question, “From where does the anti-Christ come forth from”.
We must be ever against any and all in-roads that Islam will make over the next decades. However, if you choose to allow Islam freely to rule your life I can not stop you.
The prophecies of the two witnesses require much from some of us. Are you one of those that must act upon their prophecies? Read the entire story at

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posted April 23, 2010 at 5:51 pm

God has been the excuse for executions, bigotry, torture, stoning, conquering lands and keeping people ignorant and scared. It doesen’t matter what the religion is. I believe that is what’s meant by using Gods name in vein as in the commandments.
Anyone who says they are Christian and still says and acts like many of the commentators and “other folks” we have seen lately I would not call Christian. Anyone can hate. If you truly have the spirit of Christ in your heart you know how to forgive and can lead others to learn as well.

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posted April 24, 2010 at 12:26 am

I had the first initial thought as Ray S. We need to evolve. I don’t know if that means we need to give up faith, but we all as humans need to stop killing in the name of a greater being,b because I don’t believe if there was a pure being, he/she would condone killing innocents in their name

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Uncle Sam

posted April 24, 2010 at 1:10 am

More terrorist drivel from gutless ragtops

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posted April 24, 2010 at 2:18 am

I thought this article was going to have some news about the South Park/Muhammad issue. I wasn’t expecting a soap box rant about how Christianity sucks. “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.” Indeed. Thank you for correcting the whole world in their ignorance. It’s nice to know that someone always feels the need to reprimand everyone thats more stupidder than them :). With people like you around, we need never be wrong about anything, ever.

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Suzi W.

posted April 24, 2010 at 10:47 am

reading your post, I thought of all the violence toward abortionists in “Jesus’ name.”
As a librarian, I wouldn’t want to cite Wikipedia as my only source, however, this article (link below) is pretty comprehensive. (Here comes the big generalization): Most people involved in “anti-abortion violence” are doing it because of some failed Christian reasoning.
Thank you for being willing to write this blog.

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posted April 27, 2010 at 9:45 pm

Sticking to the Southpark issue, ever see their portrayal of JC? Not exactly flattering. I’m sure some Christian groups weren’t too pleased, but I would bet there were no death threats. Your approach to this issue is a little mis-directional and unexpected (i.e. I didn’t expect the Spanish inquisition). I was hoping for some coverage of the snarky comebacks by Stone and Parker. Instead, we got – watch that judgment finger, it might be pointing at you! This is usually good advice for folks of all religions or the non-religious. For another interesting bit of Christian censorship of art check out the following link which discusses how a 10 year old’s depiction of the crucifixion (the scourging actually) was censored by a church in Texas:

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posted October 5, 2010 at 12:09 pm

I just watched a web series in which Jesus was a character. They didn’t make him too nice of a guy, which sort of bothered me. but I thought it was pretty funny especially the newer episodes. and it had a pretty good message about religious tolerance. The point is I don’t think Jesus would mind a characterization if it was for the purposes of making people laugh.

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posted April 27, 2011 at 5:56 pm

Imagine there´s no heaven,
and no religion too…

Wisest words.

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posted April 17, 2013 at 10:24 pm

I love this post so much!

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